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Volume 6   Issue 6                July  2005

Right, Fast and On Time

A tall order but one that is crucial.
The correct software can help do all this and more.

by Steve Cook

If you’re serious about addressing your customer’s needs and remaining competitive in today’s marketplace, having a good front-end selling solution is no longer an option—it’s a must. But choose wisely.

Manufacturers usually have well-laid plans when it comes to capital spending for shop floor equipment. They typically have a good understanding of the improved capacity, lower operating costs and overall return on investment (ROI) they can expect from these improvements. But shop floor equipment can’t produce the right product if the window or door is ordered incorrectly, nor can it ensure faster delivery if orders are missing key information from the customer. Yet accurate orders and timely delivery remain the top two priorities of both the manufacturer and their distribution partners. 

What’s Missing
One of the best ways to reduce these costly errors, improve lead times and increase overall efficiencies—and thus remain competitive in today’s marketplace—is through the use of a robust front-end quoting and ordering system. But such a system may make a more lasting impact on your business than you think, for better or for worse. 

Here are the top four points you should consider when making the decision to step into the electronic world of quotes and orders.

1. Can the vendor fulfill its promises?
By all means, start by doing your homework on potential vendors. Flashy demos can sometimes wow you, but is the company going to be around to support their promises? Are they well managed and financed? Can they survive the tumultuous economy of the high- tech industry? What is their level of expertise? A staff made up of a couple dozen programmers might seem lean and mean but if they lose a few people (normal in high tech) the effect could be quite disastrous. 

Understand the software vendor’s long term goals and look at their technology road map. Can they take you where you want to go? Their future is your future. The last thing you want is to put your manufacturing operations through the costly and painful process of integrating software that can only fulfill your current needs. You don’t want to uproot this in a few short years when your company outgrows it or the vendor shrinks into obscurity. 

Winners pick winners. Be sure to find out what other companies are using their software. Are these companies leaders in your respective industry? Leaders are there for a reason. Look at client lists closely as they can speak volumes for the software vendor. 

2. Is the technology a true selling solution? 
Think of the growing issue your distributors face in hiring and maintaining a qualified sales staff. Consumer needs are growing more complex every day. As a manufacturer, your engineering departments work harder than ever before to meet these complex demands. Between what you’re able to manufacture and what the consumer demands stands a sales associate and your order entry system. Can this system prompt these associates to ask the right questions that will help sell your products and features? Can it guide the selling process and be used to introduce new products to the market quickly? 

Does the system generate instantaneous (validate what they mean by instantaneous) quotes for all products or just standard units? Because of higher margins and the age of mass customization we’re in, special orders mean big business—and not just for do-it-yourself retailers. It’s the way of the future. Can the order entry software meet this demand for customization? 

3. Is the software easy to adopt for you and for all your sales channels? 
You need complete integration with your business systems. Does the order flow seamlessly from your customers’ location directly into your system as a production demand with 100-percent accuracy? Is the system easy to use? 

Does it work with your distributor’s hardware, and perhaps most importantly, will they use it? If the system is slow, unreliable or cumbersome you will alienate the very people you need to use it. Are updates simple and quick? 

No matter which software supplier you talk to, they’re going to try to convince you that their system will do the trick. Again, perhaps the best way to verify this is to look at their customer list. Leading companies tend to do a thorough analysis before buying. They also have a loud voice in choosing which software will become the new standard for their industry. 

No matter how much you may appreciate the functionality of Word Perfect, for example, Microsoft has become the de facto standard for word processing and the use of anything else leaves you alone on an island. That is how the software industry works. Don’t get stranded on that island! Go in the direction of the industry leaders and you’ll find that the software standard will be around to support you and keep you competitive in the years to come. 

4. Have you considered your own growth potential? 
Studies suggest the housing market (both new and renovation) will continue to be strong for at least seven more years. Growth during this timeframe could be exponential. Can your system grow with you? And as you grow, your product line and options will grow too. Will the software adapt easily to this higher level of volume and product complexity? Software vendors call this scalability. For you, it means the ability to reach that next level of growth.

A Consumer View
I had the opportunity recently to see a quoting software perform in a real setting (you should try this too). I needed some custom exterior French doors for a new home project. I went to my local Home Depot with the preconception that I was not going to leave satisfied— largely because of the lower wage, part-time help they employ and the fact that I needed something really special. I gave the sales associate (a kid really) an idea of what I wanted and let him walk me through what turned out to be a compelling, visually-guided selling process on his computer screen. In less than five minutes I had a printed order and a firm quote on the item I wanted, exactly as I wanted it configured. My complex needs were met, and as a consumer myself, I rewarded that with the purchase. 

There are a handful of quoting and ordering technologies now available on the market. They all say they will work well, improve your business and deliver ROI, but caveat emptor. Watch for an industry leader to emerge. Don’t choose solely based on slick demos, low price or convincing sales speak. Look at the companies closely and consider each of the four questions proposed. When you make the right choice for your business, you will find that not only do you delight your customers, but you’ll also notice a substantial return on that investment from less errors, faster lead times, more effective selling of features and options, and quicker time-to-market for new products.

If your system can deliver on these, you don’t need to crunch too many numbers to know it’s well worth the investment.

Steve Cork is a consultant for Edgenet, based in Brentwood, Tenn. Cork has more than 20 years of experience advising companies in the building and construction industries.

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